Last week, “…but the devil…” featured Part One of our interview with former San Jose Mercury-News food writer Aleta Watson. We talked about her career in journalism, how she got into writing about food, and her thoughts on celebrity chefs. Watson is well-spoken and thoughtful when speaking (and writing) about food and most of that comes from her love of cooking. Her new blog, The Skillet Chronicles, further amplifies her love of food.
We pick up the conversation mid-stream about food industry “buzzwords”:
wm.: I’d like to throw out some food buzzwords and get your thoughts on them. Let’s start with the Slow-Food movement.
Aleta: I generally love the food and I’m really interested in the local and sustainable part of it. But if you’re talking about the elitist part of it, the part where you have to have a lot of money actually do some of these things, I find that difficult. When I wrote the story (earlier this year in the Mercury-News), it was clear to me that it’s not really a big enough movement to make much difference one way or another (right now). As I recall, it only has 60,000 members nationwide and that’s not very many, and most of the people spend their time in supper clubs eating good food. But expanding beyond that, if they care, maybe there will be something there.
wm.: I agree with the elitist part, and in a way it’s kind of how I look at Farmer’s Markets. I find lots of the stuff horribly expensive. However, if you’re supporting local and sustainable then ultimately it’s worth it but much more needs to be done with that beyond the trendy.
Aleta: We’ve just been so surprised and we spend more time going to the Farmer’s Markets. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, there’s not really quite as much but we have a nice little Farmer’s Market…and Happy Boy Farms goes there. We’ve been buying the greens from Happy Boy and we’ve been astonished. We can make a half pound go for an entire week. When we buy greens from the grocery store, they only last a couple of days. It costs a little more to buy but I have much less waste because what I buy is fresh. Even their basil. I can buy a bunch and put it in a pitcher of water and it will last until it’s gone. When I buy the basil from the grocery store and it nearly gone just as I get it home.
wm.: Any thoughts or experiences with Molecular Gastronomy?
Aleta: I have had some, at Manresa and at Chez TJ, and occasionally in less stellar restaurants. I really think that I find it that exciting. I do like the concentrated flavors – the encapsulation of flavors when you bite into it, exploding into your mouth. There have been some citrus flavors that have been really wonderful. I went to Chocolat and was really impressed with it. But sometimes, these things are often like Jello to me.
I do like sous vide, but that’s not really “molecular gastronomy” but (that technique) can create some really amazing textures. In the Mercury-News Food Section, I worked a long time trying to come up with something on sous vide, and finally decided that it was just too tricky for me to try to get the home cook to do.
wm.: The thing about techniques like that, or like curing your own meat, is that there are dire warnings on the Internet about poisoning yourself. And while some of those things are true, especially if you don’t follow basic hygiene or temperature control, sous vide for me is just out of reach until I get the right equipment and can work out for myself the techniques. But it’s not “molecular gastronomy”…
Aleta: I think it’s in the same class or category but mostly I don’t like to have food to be made with a lot of gums. I feel that that’s what General Mills and Kraft have been doing for a long time. So when (restaurants) do a nicer job, it’s surprising but for the most part, off-the-wall, shocking flavors are not what I am looking for.
wm.: Where do you see the Bay Area food scene going?
Aleta: I think the real interesting part about the Bay Area is the emergence of really sophisticated, very high end Asian food. I think that’s what’s different here, and we have a really large core of people who appreciate it. Some of the best food I have eaten has been (this kind of) Asian food. I am thinking of places like Nami Nami and Xanh in Mountain View.
But I just as soon go to Vung Tau (in San Jose) just as long as I could get the good little rice cakes with the shrimp in them (báhn khot). I think that Vietnamese food is emerging, it’s not brand new but it’s continuing to grow and is going mainstream. Italian food will always be strong here. It is perfect for the Bay Area – it’s a good match. And Indian food is coming up too and is getting beyond the steam table stage which is what I think has held Indian food back.
wm.: So what’s next for you?
Aleta: I am freelancing but I haven’t gone very far with that because I haven’t been out (from the Mercury-News) very long. I started my food blog called The Skillet Chronicles. When I was working at the Merc, I didn’t have time to do it beforehand like I had hoped, so I am finishing it up now. I hope that will go some place. And I’d like to try my hand at food writing on a larger scale. It’s all kind of a little bit scary because I worked at newspapers for so long and I always knew that somebody wanted my story. But this is an opportunity for me to learn and explore, and that’s really what’s kept me enjoying it.
I do feel like I have a mission calling me to try and help people once again to see the pleasures of cooking their own food and eating it with their family. We [tend to] eat badly and don’t have that social connection anymore. So, if I can get people new and interesting recipes and not make all of them elaborate, maybe it will convince more people to see the creativity and fun in it.
So many young people are intimidated by the idea of cooking because they watch Top Chef and all the rest, and they have no idea that simple food can be good. When I interviewed Alice Waters, she was talking about the joy of this…during Slow Food Nation, she had her Green Kitchen where she brought in really respected chefs come in to cook very simply with a knife, a chopping board, a skillet and a set of basic ingredients. I thought it was a genius idea.
wm.: Aleta, thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.
Aleta: Thanks. I enjoyed it.
A collection of Aleta Watson’s articles is archived at the San Jose Mercury-News website. You can read those articles by clicking here.